Dismantling the class war

Paul Addison

  • The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750-1950. Vol I.: Regions and Communities edited by F.M.L. Thompson
    Cambridge, 608 pp, June 1990, ISBN 0 521 25788 3
  • The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750-1950. Vol II.: People and Their Environment edited by F.M.L. Thompson
    Cambridge, 392 pp, June 1990, ISBN 0 521 25789 1
  • The Temper of the Times: British Society since World War Two by Bill Williamson
    Blackwell, 308 pp, £30.00, August 1990, ISBN 0 631 15919 3

In a chapter of the Cambridge Social History V. C. Gatrell describes the relationship between policing and crime. ‘More policing,’ he writes,‘leads to more reported crime; more reported crime results in the unfortunate statistical corollary of lower clear-up rates; these in turn unleash a call for additional police resources; more resources lead to more reported crime.’ A similar model applies to the writing of British social history. Since the Sixties more and more historians have been recruited to the field. Inevitably the number of historical problems has multiplied, giving rise to more and more debates and controversies – thus proving the need for more research.

The growth of social history has been all the more rapid because of the ease with which its boundaries can be extended in almost any direction. Between social theory at one extreme, and antiquarianism at the other, lies a vast terrain which includes the history of class, religion, politics, gender, health, housing, education, leisure, sport, crime – and so on. The result is an increasingly diffuse school of studies which could easily break up into a mass of unrelated specialisms.

The Cambridge Social History, edited in three volumes by Michael Thompson, looks very much like an ambitious attempt to restore coherence and direction. But the stated aim is the more modest one of communicating ‘the fruits of recent writing and the most recent research in social history to the wider audience of students who are curious to know what the specialists have been doing and how their work fits into a general picture of the whole process of social change and development’. Twenty-two specialists have been commissioned to write wide-ranging and thorough surveys of the fields in which they are most expert. Three of the topics – Scotland, Wales and the role of government in society – have been split between two authors. Otherwise each contributor has been asked to pursue a single topic across two centuries of social change.

Professor Thompson is a self-effacing editor. In a modest preface he is at pains to stress that his contributors do not represent a single school of thought or editorial doctrine. But like the film director who receives an Oscar, and makes a speech giving all the credit to the wonderful team who made it all possible, he is not to be taken literally. In many ways this is a Thompson trilogy – for who selected the topics, cast the authors in their roles, and devised the overall scheme? The contributors do indeed vary in their opinions. But overall, the Cambridge History is a triumph of professional detachment over radical engagement.

The expansion of social history in the Sixties owed much to the work of socialist historians and their vision of class conflict and repression as the driving forces of modern British history. In the Seventies the feminists introduced a second strand of radicalism in which the same themes of conflict and repression were discovered in the relations between the sexes. In the Cambridge volumes, the primary struggles of radical history have been reduced by most of the contributors to lesser conflicts inseparable from the development of a stable but plural society.

This is what we would expect of a revisionist history. But instead of confronting the questions of class and gender directly, the editor tiptoes around them. ‘These issues,’ he explains, ‘have not been picked out for separate treatment in these volumes. The debates are best followed in the original exchanges, or in the several admirable surveys which are available.’ In practice, the contributors have been left to smuggle their own interpretations of class and gender into chapters dealing with other topics, like religion or leisure. The problem is that because of this circuitous method of handling controversial issues, two important aspects of the past have been obscured.

Since there is no chapter devoted to class, there is no attempt to analyse the social structure of Britain since 1750. The shifting hierarchies of wealth, occupation and power are concealed from view. The decline of landed society, the rise of the professions, or the growth of organised labour, are only to be glimpsed in passing. As for gender, you do not have to be a feminist to recognise the importance of the changing division of labour between the sexes. But there is no chapter on the subject. In Volume Two Leonore Davidoff has much to say on the domestic role of women in her chapter on the family. In Volume Three R.J. Morris discusses the ‘gender frontier’ in a chapter on clubs and societies. But with the best will in the world it is hard to discern the outline of the changing role of the sexes outside the home.

Apart from these omissions, the Cambridge History is persuasively organised. Social historians tend to construct the past in stages, with the economy as the base, social structure as the second tier, and social and political movements at the top. The Cambridge trilogy follows the pattern with significant variations. Volume One, on regions and communities, is grounded in economic history, but shows how the uneven economic development of the 19th century produced a diversity of towns and regions. Volume Two, which is mainly devoted to the standard of living, covers demographic change, the family, work, housing, nutrition and leisure. Volume Three, which examines the impact on society of agencies and institutions, opens with two chapters on the role of government, followed by others on education, health, crime, religion, philanthropy and the history of clubs and societies.

The social history of modern Britain has been haunted by the concept of the Industrial Revolution as the watershed between ‘traditional’ and‘modern’ society. Time and again historians asserted that between 1780 and 1850 Britain was transformed into an urban and industrial society, based on industrial capitalism and divided by class. The 1851 Census, we were told, recorded that for the first time the majority of people lived in towns. And, coincidentally, the religious census of the same year demonstrated that a majority of workers in the larger towns no longer attended church or chapel. Hey presto – industrialisation had turned Britain into a secular, urban, industrial society. Not only that. There was a workers’ movement in the form of Chartism, and an employers’ movement in the form of the Anti-Corn Law League. Class politics had arrived.

In several chapters of the Cambridge History an alternative version of the past is on display. Economic historians have long maintained that the ‘Industrial Revolution’ was a limited, ramshackle and geographically uneven affair. In consequence, the ‘social revolution’ of 1780-1850 has had to be dismantled, localised or scaled down. The society created between 1780 and 1850 was, it appears, a semi-industrial one based on workshop production, and imbued with the appropriate values of individualism and voluntary effort. The working classes continued to believe in God, while the regular churchgoing of the middle classes was more than a matter of outward convention. As James Obelkevich observes in the chapter on religion, ‘the deep and genuine religious commitment evident in this and other classes in Victorian society should not be underestimated.’

Michael Thompson’s chapter, at the beginning of Volume One, is a tour de force which sets the tone. His themes are the slow pace of urbanisation in the 19th century and the diversity of Victorian towns. The extent to which the population can be regarded as urban depends on the definition of a town. In 1851 the Registrar General classified as ‘urban’ all inhabitants of ‘towns’ with a population of more than 2500. To our way of thinking many such places were simply villages. But quite apart from that, the social gulf between a market town of 20,000 people, and a great port or city, was so great that it is meaningless to describe them both as expressions of urban society.

Class, too, is atomised in Patrick Joyce’s chapter on work. Labour historians have long assumed that 19th-century industry was a field of conflict between workers and employers in which the employers held the whip hand. Joyce turns this conception almost upside down. In his view, the organisation of British industry was ‘archaic’, and managerial authority weak, right up to the First World War. Employers, therefore, were in no position to engage in the class war and were often forced, by the pressure of competition, into a state of dependence on their employees. Hence neither workers nor employers saw the world predominantly in terms of class conflict. On the contrary, the firm often took on the character of a community. This leads Joyce to a judgment that would have outraged many labour historians in the past: ‘The extent to which capital and labour have a common interest in co-operation has been generally overlooked.’

If class was contained by community in the 19th century, we are free to shift the focus to the regional and cultural diversity of the period. In Volume One this is brought out in a series of lively essays on the English regions and countryside. Unlike many works which purport to be histories of Britain but are actually histories of England, the Cambridge History is the real thing. Scotland and Wales are built into the brickwork in Volume One. ‘The haggis,’ writes Rosalind Mitchison, is ‘unmistakably the food of a poor nation’. In the same brisk tone she traces the distinctive features of the economic, political and religious history of Scotland up to 1850. For Christopher Smout the subsequent history of Scotland is marked by a decisive break at the end of the First World War. ‘Before that,’ he writes, ‘all was confidence and the expectation of further enrichment, whatever shortcomings there may have been in fact in the distribution of wealth and levels of deprivation in town and country. After it, all was despair and the assumption that, in the natural order of things, Scotland would always need special care and attention.’ Pessimistic though this judgment is, it is a far cry from the sectarian myth of Red Clydeside. Social historians have, in fact, been emancipating themselves from the somewhat narrow preoccupations of labour history, and learning to appreciate other dimensions of the past. In the chapter on Wales, D.W. Howell and C. Baber offer a glowing account of the beneficial effects of the chapel on popular culture: ‘It taught the working classes of the valley towns and ports the virtues of thrift, sobriety, cleanliness and honesty in an environment of pervading squalor, drunkenness and careless abandon.’

Social historians are increasingly inclined to think in terms of a ‘remaking’ of class and culture at some point between 1880 and 1920, with the Great War as a powerful accelerator of change. There seems to have occurred at this period a ‘nationalisation of culture’ reflected in such developments as the rise of Association Football. Similarly, the individual character of the Victorian town was gradually dissolving into the undifferentiated suburbia of the 20th century. Indeed, in Thomson’s view the remaking of class was a consequence of the decay of the Victorian city, a process hastened by the well-known agent of class formation, the Labour Party. In an excellent chapter on the almost impossible topic of ‘clubs, societies and associations’, R.J. Morris highlights a parallel development: the creation of what he calls a ‘vast infrastructure of socialism’ in the form of Clarion clubs, labour churches, socialist Sunday schools, and revitalised Co-ops. Whatever became, one wonders, of the infrastructure of Liberalism?

If politics cannot be left out, neither can the relationship between government and society. Pat Thane tackles the period from 1750 to 1914, while Jose Harris, fortunately, takes no notice of the 1950 boundary, and carries the discussion forward into the early Eighties. Her chapter, which includes a searching analysis of the mismatch between a centralising state and a libertarian society after 1940, is outstanding.

Neither Thane nor Harris accepts that British government has broadened down from precedent to precedent. Both insist on the discontinuity between the 19th and the 20th-century state. The Mid-Victorians possessed a coherent conception of the relations between state and society. Conscious though they were of ‘social evils’, they believed that local government, voluntary effort and self-help were the best means of resolving them. As they saw it, the key to social reform lay in the readiness of people in all classes to accept their social responsibilities. If society were to unload its responsibilities onto the central government, the result would necessarily be an irresponsible society.

The Victorians had some reason to celebrate the virtues of civil society. In his stimulating chapter on philanthropy, Frank Prochaska dismisses the idea that it was merely a device whereby the rich obtained ‘social control’ over the poor. Philanthropy, he argues, was a value which saturated the lives of all classes and was practised by the poor themselves when friends or neighbours needed help. In what may well be the most subversive proposition advanced by any of the contributors he writes: ‘It is suggestive to think of the history of philanthropy broadly as the history of kindness.’

If we speak of kindness, however, we must also speak of cruelty. Though charitable towards the ‘deserving’ poor, the Mid-Victorians were harsh towards the ‘undeserving’. The main purpose of the ‘policeman state’, as V.C. Gatrell calls it, was to inflict severe penalties on members of the unskilled working class for committing the most pathetically humble offences. Instead of writing a survey of crime and punishment between 1750 and 1950, Gatrell has decided to grind an axe with evidence drawn mainly from Victorian and Edwardian Britain. ‘The history of crime,’ he writes, ‘is largely the history of how better-off people disciplined their inferiors; of how élites used selected law-breakers to sanction their own authority; or of how in modern times bureaucrats, experts and policemen use them to justify their own expanding authority and influences.’ Of all the contributors he is the lone radical iconoclast, denouncing social injustice and satirising respectable fears. He is over the top, but excellent company.

Why did the Gladstonian consensus disintegrate? What were the origins of the welfare state and the managed economy? Historians ought, perhaps, to know by now. There has been much research into policy-making, and long-term factors like the extension of the franchise or changes in ideology are generally accepted as important. But as Jose Harris remarks, ‘the exact nature of the changing relationship between government and society remains obscure.’ Perhaps we should allow for accidents. In an excellent chapter on housing, M.J. Daunton shows how an unexpected twist transformed the situation during the First World War. Up to 1914 the majority of British people lived in rented accommodation. But the Rent Act of 1915, a panic reaction to unrest on the Clyde, derailed the housing market. Rent control, once introduced, proved impossible to remove. Inevitably it led to a steep, long-term decline in the provision of housing to let. The response of the state was to fill the gap with two subsidised alternatives: council housing and the purchase of a home through a building society. Either way, housing policy was expensive, socially divisive, and liable to create an immobile urban peasantry. On the consequences of the Rent Act, Daunton summarises the judgment of Thompson himself: ‘If one wanted to pick out one single origin of the fundamentally stable, unprotesting, unenterprising and conservative society of late 20th-century Britain, one could do worse than start with 1915.’

The Cambridge History contains so many themes and topics that it is impossible to do justice to them all. But mention should be made of a searching exploration of the social history of medicine by Virginia Berridge, and a masterly review of demographic trends by Michael Anderson. Anderson, incidentally, demonstrates that the net loss of males through emigration between 1900 and 1913 was more than double the number killed during the First World War. Like A.J.P. Taylor, graphs and tables have their paradoxes.

The Cambridge History plainly owes as much to historical method as to social theory. It is rich in the kind of descriptive detail which can only come from years of grubbing about in the archives. But all this information is, of course, there for a purpose: to define the contours of a social structure. This is as it should be, but in the process there is always the risk that the past will be converted into an elegantly constructed Legoland of the imagination. Socialist and feminist historians have sometimes been mistaken. But in presenting the past as a drama of toil, tears and sweat, they have hit upon a psychological truth which is often missing in the Cambridge Social History.

Is it possible for social historians to write the history of feeling and sentiment, and if so, how would such a history be related to economic and social structure? In his book The Temper of the Times Bill Williamson has bravely attempted to solve the problems. His theme is the withering of collective hopes and culture in post-war Britain, and the rise in their place of an aggressive, anti-social individualism. Extremely well read in the social history of the period, and strongly inspired by personal experience, he has written an honest and passionate book. As he freely admits, he may well have imposed on the times the experience of a particular generation from the North of England. Raised in the ideals of 1945, they lived to see their aspirations thwarted by the materialism of consumer society and trampled underfoot by Thatcherite ideology. The loss, perhaps, is theirs, rather than a loss incurred by society as a whole. But the pain is real.